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How ‘4Chords/4Bars’ Songs Took Over The World

In the world of popular song, there’s nothing new in using what might be called a formulaic approach to harmony – letting the chords be a song’s predictable, familiar element – and saving the variations for the melody and lyric.

In recent years a new harmonic convention has emerged in mainstream pop music. And it’s virtually taken over the world… that world anyway.

In a recent Billboard chart, ten of the Top Twenty songs use this approach… including #s 1-4.

It’s never been uncommon for songs in a certain genre to have the same or very similar chord progressions. There’s the 12 Bar Blues. There’s the 32 Bar Standard AABA song’s most common chords (I VI II V in the ‘A’ sections and the ‘B’ section going to the IV chord).

There are many Pop and Doo-Wop songs from the ‘50s and beyond using that same I VI II V. There are thousands of Rock ’n Roll songs in the ‘Louie Louie’ and ‘Wild Thing’ vein using I IV V. There are zillions of rock song using variations of those same three chords of the Blues, not to mention all the folk and country songs… that use those same three chords. Etc.

The most recent chordal convention is the use, throughout the entire song, of a 4 bar pattern, one chord to a bar. Usually all in the same key. That’s it. I’ll call it ‘4 Chords/4Bars’ for now.

As I said above, ten of the current Top Twenty songs use this approach.

Actually, one of those ten is an 8 bar pattern; two chords to a bar – almost the same thing. And one song has a 2 bar pattern that repeats (‘Closer’ by The Chainsmokers). Also almost the same thing – which makes eleven… out of twenty.

Also, these songs almost always have a steady driving rhythm (this is not a chord progression that lends itself to ballads).

Of course this trend won’t last forever; people get sick of things eventually. This ‘4Chords/4Bars’ approach has already been around for a while (don’t miss the awesome ‘Axis Of Awesome’ clip below) – even Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ fits the template – but now it’s dominating the charts.

I’d say it’s reached the tipping point where we have to acknowledge it as a specific ‘type of song’. I don’t know of an official name for it yet (do you?), so I’ll call it ‘4Chords/4Bars’. But it’s here!

Let me know your thoughts in the Comments section below:


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6 responses to “How ‘4Chords/4Bars’ Songs Took Over The World”

  • brian wolle

    my songwriting never followed any formulas -why should it?

  • Joyce Rogers

    Axis of Awesome clever and interesting. Never say never…

  • Hi Tony,
    So music’s gone back to 4 chord like in the fifties.
    I think the Beatles in particular were one of the
    reasons the songs got more harmonically interesting
    in the 60’s. Their sophisticated melodies and harmonies
    set the bar pretty high and others tried to emulate them
    especially with all the success they were having.
    It seems to me that another obvious reason that songwriting has gotten
    back to the basic 4 chords is because of modern technology
    which has enabled non-musicians to be able to create
    a professional sounding product without having to have
    any musical education. It’s so much easier to create a professional
    sound now, that knowing anything about music or having
    any musical education is just not important or necessary anymore.
    Just some thoughts. I’m trying to get with the program but I really
    miss the great melodies and harmonies of the past.


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